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Interview with Janice Huber Stangl (JS)

Conducted by Homer Rudolf (HR) and Bob Dambach (BD)
Bismarck, North Dakota
18 October 2004

Transcription by Amanda Swenson
Proofing and Editing by Jane Trygg and Jessica Holkup
Proofing German expressions by Marvin L. Hartmann

Prairie Public Collection


HR: So we’ll start by having you give us your name and where you were born.

JS: My name is Janice Huber Stangl. I was born in Sagemann township in South Dakota, near Hosmer, and Bowdle. Sagemann township was once the most heavily populated Germans from Russia population in South Dakota.

HR: And your family is from where?

JS: My family lineage on my paternal side is from Glueckstal and Kassel, and on my maternal side it’s in Bessarabia and Neu and Alt-Elft and Borodino and Arzis. And then later they migrated up into Neu Beresina and Nesselrode which is in Glueckstal area.

HR: Do you have a first musical memory that you want to share with us?

JS: My first musical memory, I believe, is when we chanted our ABC’s in German. In our little Sunday school class, we were huddled back in the tiniest room in the basement. Mrs. Aldinger would gather us preschoolers around her, in our little chairs, and she would lovingly chant, [singing] “Ah, Bae, Tsae, Deh, Ee, F, Geh.” And I remember the chart having beautiful illustrations around the outside of it. And I couldn’t have been much more than three or four years old. But this later enabled me to teach myself how to read German in that old Fraktur print.

HR: Were other members in your family musicians too?

JS: In my maternal family, my grandmother, was one of the people in the congregation that would set the pitch for a hymn during the services. And she, I’m told she had a very rich, velvety alto voice, which fortunately momma, and myself inherited.

HR: And did you have music going on at home when you were growing up?

JS: Music in my home was probably, mostly through the church. We had different groups that would rehearse. But in the home, I was the only child, the older child and it was not until later when I started to take piano lessons, that music was a very viable part in our actual household.

HR: Well, tell us about taking music lessons.

JS: Almost every girl in our congregation aspired to be a church pianist. And therefore several girls, taught themselves by ear, or they had older siblings that they somehow picked it up. But I was fortunate enough that momma and daddy would scrape together that fifty cents every week to give me for my piano lessons. And I started when I was in first grade, and eventually became the church pianist.

HR: If you lived in the country, where did you take the lessons, in town?

JS: We did live in the country; however, we were only about a mile from town. So my piano teacher lived in town and I was able to stop in on the way home from school once a week to take my piano lessons from Mrs. Gross.

HR: Did you play the piano in school also?

JS: I did play the piano somewhat to accompany some of the younger classes. One of my teacher friends tells me that it was a valuable source, and that she could not sing very well, and that I came and played for her. Sixth grade music classes, and I can hardly remember it, but that’s what I was told. (laughs)

HR: What’s the first piece of music that you ever remember learning, other than the Ah, Bae, Tsae? Is that basically what you remember?

JS: I would say the first melody or first music I learned from memory was probably Away in the Manger. And I learned that in English, because I was all of about four or five years old. And, I sang it as a solo, during the Christmas program, and that was one thing in our congregation, they very much encouraged, from the very smallest child, to sing and do their songs for the congregation, especially at Christmas time for the Christmas programs.

HR: What was the church entirely in English at that point?

JS: The church was not entirely in English when I was learning my first songs from memory. Because I can remember also singing Gott ist die Liebe, but that was not the first song. And that one was when we were little older, and some of the girls were even able at a very young age, to already sing the second part harmony, and then of course as we matured, we would add more and more parts of harmony, until we had a rich full sound in some of the gospel hymns.

HR: What do you mean by gospel hymns?

JS: The music in our Evangelical, in our Evangelische Church, was I think almost what you would classify white gospel. The revivalist kinds of songs, they had a very good swing to them. They had a good basic four part harmony. Repetitive melody lines. Very easy to learn and pick up. The bass part usually had a good echo part and a good beat to it. So that’s what I just kind of classify, I don’t know if it’s the correct term, but I call it, kind of a white gospel sound.

HR: Very good description as a matter of fact.

(laughs)

HR: So how did you become involved...we talked about piano lessons, and so on were there other things that you can think of in the process of becoming a musician?

JS: In our community, in the high school. We were very fortunate that we had a choral director that gave up her noon hours, and also before and after school, she would give us free solo lessons. And she also would form different ensembles, and work with us. So it was through her tireless efforts that many of us went on to study music, then on the college level also. So I was a fortunate recipient of her vocal lessons, and then went on to college to study with a vocal scholarship.

HR: So did you get a music major then?

JS: I did not get a music major. I got a education major, with a minor in music.

HR: Tell us a little more about church music when you were growing up. Did you have men and women sitting on different sides, or things like that in the churches?

JS: In our church, the men definitely sat to the right, and the women sat to the left. And the hymns were very intrical part of course of the worship service. But probably even more important, were the afternoon services, which were almost like a “singspiration” which were even more music in the service. Shorter bible lessons, and until I can’t remember the exact years, but that was most of my growing up years, those services were still in German. And as far as music, that had to be in womb, because there was always that rich resonance of momma singing. And then when you became a tiny tot, you would sing on momma’s lap, and if momma could sing at all, I mean, it just came through every part of your being. And I remember once I was too big to sit on mommas lap, I would sit beside her. But, as I lean my head against her shoulder, especially on Sunday afternoons when I would get tired, and couldn’t quite understand the German service, I could still remember the resonance in her body when she would sing the hymns with such, such spirit, and fervor and love, for the songs that they sang in the German language.

HR: Did you have midweek services too?

JS: We did have midweek services, every Wednesday night. In fact it was an understanding in the community, that there would be no school activities, or no dances, Wednesday night was for the churches. Because almost every church did have a choir, and that was choir rehearsal night, and that was usually after our midweek worship service. That we also had, and there again, that again was a service that was a little lighter in nature and had quite a bit of music in it.

HR: You mentioned dancing. Dances, did you... were dances common where you were?

JS: Community dances were quite frequent when we had... of course when a wedding. And sometimes of course, they’d just get together, and decide to just ask a band in. And I wouldn’t say it was every Saturday night, but it had to be quite frequently, that we had musicians in for dances at the community hall, so to speak.

HR: Did you go to the dances?

JS: I did not attend the dances. I can’t say that the religion completely forbid it, because I know some of the kids that did. Mom and Daddy just were a little, they didn’t want their little girl to be exposed to some of the influences that went on outside of the dances lets say. Some of the rowdiness, I guess, is what they objected to, it wasn’t the dancing itself so much as some of the rowdy activities that accommodated the dances.

HR: Do you remember going to weddings when you were growing up, and anything about the music at those?

JS: I can remember the weddings that the service was so long, that they would sit the bride and groom down for the sermon. And I can remember the music in the earlier weddings was all congregational hymns. And it was only toward the later years, that soloists would be encouraged to sing as apart of the service.

HR: What about the wedding receptions?

JS: Wedding receptions we had no music. Those were usually held in the church basement. They were a very basic reception. Just a meal together, and there was no music or dancing of course in the church basement.

HR: So you didn’t have two or three day weddings.

JS: No we didn’t, the weddings were very simple that I remember.

HR: What about other special occasions during the year that for example, do you remember special music for funerals? Do you remember anything about that?

JS: I can remember the grieving melodies, when there was a funeral. And I think it was .

(Starts crying...Homer explains that it is not a good question to ask; she just lost a favorite aunt.)

JS: Let me see if I can pull myself together. I think I can.

HR: Take your time.

JS: Just give me a couple minutes here.
Take a small break.

JS: Funerals again, the hymns were sung by the congregation, I cannot remember a soloist doing a solo during the funeral times. And of course, the songs were full of longing and departing. [Still crying] I better skip this one.

HR: For a pleasant memory, you remember back to Christmas and you doing your little skit then for Christmas time.

JS: Christmas programs were always looked forward to, it was an exciting time. And of course as youngsters we would get into the fervor and excitement of the Christmas and you had to learn your little Spruechle (poetic verse) because every child in the Sunday school class was expected to learn a Spruechle. And of course those of us that were a little braver, or just loved to sing for the sheer love of it, we sang our solos. And then usually we would gather all the children together and would sing several Christmas carols, and some of us sang with more gusto than other. But all children were encouraged and given a chance to participate in learning the different songs, and performing them, and being very comfortable with them, in our growing up years.

HR: You were talking about a Spruechle now, we need to know what that means.

JS: The little Spruechle is usually just a poem or a little Bible verse. But that’s the first word I learned, and it was always done by memory of course. And as you matured and became an older child of course the Spruechle got longer, and longer, and I can remember some of the I would say, pre-teen boys, standing up to give their Spruechle and those pant legs, would just waver furiously with their nervousness. And then again, like I said, others of us would just blithely get up and whip it off all, and be so proud of ourselves, that we had remembered all of our Spreuchle without being coached at all.

HR: You speak so strongly about your mothers singing, and the fact that you remember her singing in church. Did she sing in the home? Did she sing lullabies to you and things like that?

JS: I cannot remember momma singing at home. And I can’t figure that out, because my mother loved to sing. She always stayed for choir rehearsal. Sometimes there would be a small women’s group that would perform, either for services or especially, if there was something special for the ladies aid’s program, or such. But I can’t remember momma singing at home. I guess that old work ethic, she hardly even had time to sing. Just work, work, work. [laughs]

HR: You had shown us before, the prayer book of your great-grandmother, and so on. And that had songs, but you’re not sure about her singing them. Would you talk about the fact that, those were meditations, but also included a song text, if preached that?

JS: In our family history, there was a box of books that was hidden during WWI, because they were written in German. And they did not want any materials that contained anything written or printed in Germany. And in that box, there was also a small hymnal and there was one of Grandma’s prayer book. And these were used daily for their meditations, or devotion time. Usually grandma’s prayers were morning and evening. And they also would sing or chant a prayer, a hymn, or a song as they were doing it, and as you can see, these books were lovingly used. And right about where you would turn the page each time, it becomes more worn and darker with the age and use. But, I think what is also interesting, they had the song book that they used for their every day use, but way back when a person was confirmed, in the old country as they say. Among their gifts would be their first songbook. That they were to bring to the services, for their own personal use. And then we have records from Nesselrode that lists the assets of a bride and a groom. And along with the pillow, and the gear for the kitchen, and the gear for the horses. Each person brings, a Gesangbuch, their hymnal. And that’s part of their dowry, to bring to the marriage, was even a songbook, in our colonists’ villages, in south Russia.

HR: Now, this is not your great-grandmother’s hymnal, tell us why you brought this one.

JS: I don’t know whose hymnal this was for sure. I just know that it was in the box, of books that was hidden under the grainery during WWI. So, I don’t know if it was grandpa’s or great-grandma’s. And unfortunately it was one of those questions, I never asked. It was just always apart of our household, and I didn’t know exactly whose it was.

HR: You have relatives who spent time in exile, and in the Urals, and then created their own hymnal, Sacred Family, could you talk about that?

JS: The importance of music, it was such an important element, to the lives of our people. When our German-Russian colonists that were left behind in Russia, in the 1900s, and then of course into the Second World War. When they were being resettled into Poland and all, they could not carry very many things with them. They had to choose and so often, heavy books were left behind. And then again once more, when they were being resettled, or taken from Germany, into Russia, there they were actually stripped of personal things. Their birth certificates, their Bibles, their hymn books, were taken at different stops when they were checking along the way from the trek from Germany into the Urals or Siberia.

So the one family that had several members, they tell me of arriving at this camp that consisted of 16 loggers, or 16 log buildings, with 8 rooms on each side. And it had a hallway down the middle. So we’ve got 16 rooms, each rooms is probably not much larger than your and my living room, but they had up to 13 people or 15 people in this one room, but you couldn’t keep their spirit down, even without books. What they would do, as soon as they had a scrap of paper, they would gather around and they would start writing from memory. And this is where the momma’s, and grandmother’s were so vital, because they were the people that retained, or had learned the German hymns from very young on. They would write these songs down, and if someone would forget a line or so, naturally they’d just go to the next room and the next thing you know, they would have the whole song constructed, done from memory. And this did this until I think they had over 100 hymns that they could share, and they would sing in the evenings around the table they said. Very often, when they were finished with their work, out in the cold, cold day. And had, had their evening meal, and it must have been very therapeutic for them, to sing these beloved old hymns that they had grown up with, in their little home villages.

HR: Helma was, of course, was very young when she left, but did this in some ways help her keep German alive as a language.

JS: I would say that the ability to sing the songs in German, had definitely kept the German language alive, much longer in our families. It was their again, I would say, Mother, and especially Grandma was the one that needed and even though, once the must have their lessons, and their schools had to be in Russia, and even their songs then, had to be in Russian. It was Grandma at home that insisted that they sing the German hymns, and learn their little German Bible verses. And they really do credit, their grandmother’s and mother’s for preserving the German language among them.

HR: And would the (unclear) family still have those hymnals?

JS: The one family in the logger, definitely has the hymnals. And what they did then, as they got more scraps of paper, they developed the second one for the next oldest daughter, because Mother was very adamant that these hymns would not be lost. And that they should hand them down, from the next child, to the next child. And that was being done. In fact, even today they are reproducing, the songs for their grandchildren now, so they will not forget those German hymns.

HR: And do they still get together and sing?

JS: The one family that made their own hymn book, whenever they get together, part of after Kuchen (fruit topped coffee cake) time in the afternoon is to sit around the table and to sing songs for I would say a half hour, to forty-five minutes at least, before they depart from home.

BD: If you would just sing for me…do you remember those songs that you mentioned earlier Jan, those songs you remember from school?

JS: Well, I chanted a little bit of the [sings], “Ah, Bae, Tsae, Dae."

HR: No, but there was the special little things you learned for recitation.

JS: Oh, I don’t remember any of those. Our little Spruechle you mean? Nope, don’t remember any Spruechle.

HR: They didn’t teach you well enough then. (laughs)

JS: Well, no those were drilled and drilled and drilled. Because you learned a different one every year. (laughs)

HR: Can you think of anything else?

JS: I can’t think of anything else. If I can keep myself together, I would love to tell about the songs that they sang at the funerals, again was done with the congregation. And when you go through a hymnal, you will find that most of them are filled with longing. And, that the colonists that came to America, sang them with great fervor, and great emotion, and grieving because, it was their homeland they lost. [starts crying] I can’t do it again.

HR: Well we got enough there.

JS: Oh, I can remember the one fellow at church, he would cry, and here I am crying and crying. Yah…yah…

HR: Let me ask you though, was it good to leave us with something they sang out at the cemetery?

JS: I can’t remember that for sure, but I can remember it was such a stable part of you know, of a... sometimes, it’s interesting on Wednesday evenings, we would get to choose, we would name some of our favorite hymns that we would like to sing, and Gott ist die Liebe (God is Love) was just about chosen every Wednesday evening, when we got to chose our own favorite hymns to sing.

HR: There was a Schicksal (fate, predetermined path) is that something that means anything to you, or was that just the Catholic tradition?

JS: A Schicksal?

HR: Well um the, Catholics have the one funeral song that kind of .. for shown (unclear), and the Lutherans, had the Wo findet die Seele,{die Heimat, die Ruhe)? (Where finds the soul, its home, its rest?) that referred to the Schicksal, but those were the only two I know that refer to the Schicksal.

JS: And see, I can’t [remember], see we never walked to the cemetery, because our little church was moved in from the country, and then the cemetery was probably almost a mile away, and that was always done in caravan. So, and that’s another one of the questions, I didn’t ask momma. I can’t think of anything else, did I explain well enough about the (unclear)?

HR: Yes, it was very interesting. Could we do one thing, I want to get a good tight shot of you flipping through the...... Yeah.

[Flipping through the pages.]

BD: She’s a good page flipper, I remember that.

JS: And its nice...

Talking about nothing, in the background, accordions? [laughter].

HR: Is there any writing on the front or is it pretty plain?

[laughter]

JS: Those were probably the happy songs. [laughter] Kept those out of that book.

Interview ends.

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